Circa 1500

Northern Italy, probably Emilia Romagna

Red earthenware, white slip, green and ochre pigment, lead glaze

33.5 cm high, 26.5 cm wide

Painted inventory no. 17.345

In the hands of a skilled Italian potter, the humblest of materials red clay covered with a creamy–white slip, incised and splashed in copper–green and iron–yellow ochre were transformed into this poignant Renaissance work of art of the Madonna Enthroned. The sculptural plaque moulded in relief represents a traditional Christian subject, the seated Madonna, or Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child, here, surrounded by four angels. In composition, it pays homage to Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna, of about 1310, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The subject was popularised by the numerous woodblock prints after late gothic and early renaissance artists, but also sculptural terracotta.

The importance of the central group, is dramatically emphasized by the small-scale surrounding figures of devout acolytes, which is intensified by their angled heads, drawing the viewer back to the two principal figures. Real intimacy and emotion are captured in the portrayal of the Madonna embracing the standing child with her hand about to stroke his face, while looking wistfully heavenwards. The direct inspiration is perhaps a terracotta plaque, Madonna and Child with Angels, by the sculptor Michele da Firenze (1385–circa 1455), in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, whose work was much celebrated in his time.[1] At least one other glazed ceramic example has been identified illustrating the influence of Michele da Firenze, making our plaque an important discovery and contribution to the field.[2]

Devotional or votive plaques (targhe), produced at almost all early potteries in Northern Italy, were installed on the exteriors and interiors of domestic dwelling, above doors, in bedrooms, or in small wall niches, and even in stables, as well as in churches when given in fulfilment of a vow.[3] They were also placed on roadside altars as well as attached to trees for the private devotion of travellers, providing protection from harm at all times of the day. The majority of surviving examples are of tin–glazed earthenware (maiolica), and less well–known are examples in incised slipware (ingobbiate graffite), a technique popularly known as “Sgraffito” (scratched through).[4]

The technique dates back to the Tang dynasty (618–907) in China and was disseminated through trade in the Islamic and Byzantine worlds. It was refined by Italian potters in the North, especially in Emilia Romagna and the southern Veneto in the 15th century. Attributions are difficult because production was widespread and few pieces are dated, hence research is ongoing.[5] Another plaque, similar in theme, technique, and date, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, has been cautiously attributed to the Veneto, but is distinctly different with the use of cobalt blue and large areas of slip scraped away to create a red ground.[6] Consequently, our plaque was probably made in a workshop in Emilia Romagna, rather than the Veneto.

For this plaque a thick slab of clay has been pressed over a mould with the scene in reverse, and when dry and removed it was covered with the liquid clay slip. Fine details have been skilfully incised to reveal the red body below, such as the faces of the Madonna, Christ Child and angels, costumes and haloes, against a seeded ground. The architectural details echo the new interest in linear perspective which emerged during the Renaissance creating the illusion of depth and space; it shares similarities with Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Alterpiece, 1472–4, in Milan. A distinctive incised cross–hatched border filled–in with dots and a guilloche–style band at the top frame the composition. These features are masterfully accented with painting in green and ochre, with splashes allowed to form tiny tears across the surface under a clear straw–coloured lead glaze. Four small holes piercing the upper border, were created by the potter to secure the plaque to a wall, suspended from nails.

We are grateful to Dr. Elisa P. Sani and Patricia Ferguson for in cataloguing this plaque.

Visible chips and glaze flakes, no restoration.

Oxford Authentication Thermoluminescence Analysis Report, sample no. N118g92 is consistent with this date

Private collection, London


[1] Aldo Galli, ‘Michele da Firenze: i problemi dell’attività giovanile’, Prospettiva, No. 68 (Ottobre 1992), pp. 13–29, fig. 2. We thank Dr Elisa P. Sani for this identification.

[2] For the maiolica example of the Virgin and Child, see Elisa P. Sani, Matthew Reeves, and Justin Raccanello, Maiolica before Raphael: Italian Ceramics before 1500, Sam Fogg Gallery, London, 2017, cat. no. 37.

[3] Elisa Paola Sani, ‘La maiolica rinascimentale in Umbria: le targhe devozionali fra arti figurative e ceramica’, Università degli Studi di Siena, Scuola di Specializzazione in Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte, 2005; and Maria Cecchetti, Targhe devozionali dell’Emilia Romagna, Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche Faenza, Catalogo general delle raccolte, I, Milan, 1984.

[4] A large collection of religious plaques formed by Professor Sergio Baroni, is today housed in the Museo Civico San Rocco, in Fusignano, Emilia– Romagna, Italy.

[5] Timothy Wilson, Italian Maiolica and Europe: Medieval and Later Italian Pottery in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2017, 392; Romolo Magnani and Michelangelo Munarini, La ceramica graffita del Rinascimento tra Po, Adige e Oglio : Palazzo Ducale, Revere, Ferrara,1998; and Giovanni L. Reggi, La ceramica graffita in Emilia-Romagna dal secolo XIV al secolo XIX, Modena, 1971.

[6] Julia E. Poole, Italian Maiolica and Incised Slipware in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, Cambridge, 1995, cat. no. 563, pp. 513-514. We thank Dr Elisa P. Sani for this reference.